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Fr. 440

November 18, 2013

For his part, Stout believes that there is a way forward. If these are not that society’s only options, then it remains to be seen what alternatives might help overcome the theoretico-practical dilemma in which it finds itself. But how is society to know what those alternatives are?

That said, it is first necessary to know more precisely those theoretico-practical commitments with which the secularist-theocratic position is saddled. With this end in mind, Stout comes back to the notion of “discursive purity” and further refines it into that of monologism:

“They are both monological in the sense that they propose to set the terms of public deliberation in advance. The democratic alternative to monologue is dialogue, an open-ended political culture in which citizens of various kinds hammer out their differences with one another as they go along” (idem.).

If the term “monologue” is perhaps more familiar from the terminology of theater, the term here means nothing of the sort. Etymologically speaking, the term simply denotes “one or a single discourse” as opposed to dialogue or “two discourses”. Of course,  Stout’s idea of monologism also carries with it the idea that the speaker is fixed or unalterable: namely, that one determines in advance both who the speaker is and what kind of reasons the speaker is permitted to offer and have count as good reasons. As examples of monologism, one might include the so-called “Jeffersonian compromise”, according to which religious beliefs are to be kept out of the public in favor of the private domain, as well as Rawls’ “public reason” and “common basis”, which is to guide all discussion of essential constitutional matters with reference to principles that all participants to the dialogue must share before engaging in said discussion.

While persuasive, this monological ideal is, however, without an incontrovertible precedent of historical fulfillment. Specifically, in regards to discussion in the public sphere, there has never been a full and thoroughgoing agreement on: 1.) what a good reason is; 2.) what one may express in public and to the public and 3.) what makes a reason good in and for the public. This comes out with particular force in the examples given above. As is clear from the wording of early constitutional documents, Jefferson includes references to god and the supernatural within the domain of the public sphere while Rawls’ view meets with criticism for such different reasons as having an incoherent view of individuality and trying to pass off his own comprehensive doctrine as a “merely political” stance. The role of religion in the abolitionist and civil rights movement likewise attests to this blurring of the lines between public and private.

In gesturing to just such phenomena, Stout concludes that institutional arrangements have never been such to prevent “any substantial group of American citizens from expressing its religious views in public or inferring political conclusions from those views” (idem.) and that there is insufficient evidence of any tacit pact to the same effect. Insofar as the political process has continued in the presence of these and, more importantly, sometimes taken its own direction from these, it follows that the mere fact of there being religious views in the public sphere cannot be said to lead in and of itself to the interruption of dialogue in political society.

On the contrary, “democratic deliberation tends to break down not when religious reasons are voiced in the public square, but rather when some group, religious or secular, starts behaving as if it intended to dominate others.” (ibid., p. 9). It only with the perceived intent of domination and initiation of political monologue that political dialogue breaks down. In other words, domination is that which is opposed to political society in democracy, regardless of the arguments and reasons in which it comes cloaked. Stout lends his conclusion still more strength when he writes that:

“Every time one faction tries to enforce a monological approach to decision making, other groups are entitled to accuse that faction of a desire to dominate, of trying to impose its views on the public. The spirit of democracy, being dialogical, is at odds with both secularism and theocracy” (idem.).

Whatever its form, it is monologism as a whole that is to be avoided in democratic society, and, to this end, each and every party to political dialogue should stand in the role of monologic critic in regards to both others and oneself. Moreover, just as the imposition of rules in favor of one kind of discourse is not a tenable discursive maneuver nor is the attempt to find rules that constitute a neutral, middle ground between two sides of a disagreement, from which their disagreement might be adjudicated. For this constitutes simply a more subtle monologism in which the terms of discussion and giving reasons are as equally fixed in advance as on the secularist or theocratic view. Accordingly, it is only with the within and changing environs of political discourse itself that terms are to be fixed, always with an eye to their potential revision.

In the end, for Stout, secularist talk and theocratic doctrine come to much the same in that these are mirrored doctrines, isomorphisms, in which it is entirely a question of the rules of discursive purity and monologism. If progress is to be made on the issues facing a democratic society, it is not through separating the religious from the public as this would amount to little more than a half-measure. On the contrary, this can only be achieved through simultaneously divorcing secularism more strictly from democratic institutions and practices.

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